Recent retreats and sell-outs by trade union leaders make the Workers’ Summit in London on 23 September even more important than it was before. We don’t want the hope, progress and momentum of the last year of resistance to be frittered away.
Lambeth and Hackney NEU union districts in London, the NHS Workers Say No campaign group, and Strike Map launched the summit in early June, building on previous meetings. Around 80 trade union branches now back it. From the start, its slogans of “Link the fights, reject bad deals, fight to win” marked it out as different to the wide range of initiatives designed to deliver solidarity with the strikes.
Implicitly—and certainly for Socialist Worker supporters—it meant that, although the much higher level of strikes was inspiring, the existing strategy was inadequate to make a breakthrough. And that’s ten times more relevant now because the terrain of struggle is very different to when the summit was floated.
Large sections of workers who were then in struggle—and could potentially be united in common days of walkouts—have left the field. That’s not because they have won stunning victories. CWU union leaders persuaded 115,000 Royal Mail workers to accept a deal that imposes a crushing below‑inflation pay package amid stepped‑up assaults on working conditions.
As often happens, union leaders get their way because of the tiredness, frustration and disillusion of large sections of the membership after repeated occasional strikes have led nowhere. This mood of fatigue is directly a product of the union leaders’ strategy.
If, as happened in Royal Mail, the 18 days of spaced-out strikes don’t win then it’s not surprising that there is great scepticism about voting for more. The same leaders are likely to adopt the same failed tactics as before. The argument that an indefinite strike could have won in less than 18 days is quite widely accepted. But organising such a strike wasn’t credible to enough workers.
Also removed from the battlefield recently are the 300,000 NEU education union members in England, the single largest component of the 2022-3 strike wave. Their deal was not nearly so bad as the CWU’s. They will feel it was worth striking and not defeated.
But the deal was still far below inflation and therefore a pay cut. It was a major setback that union leaders did not put forward the escalating strikes that could have won a clear victory. At the same time the other education unions—most importantly the NASUWT—also backed the deal.
In the civil service, the PCS union leaders have not dared to put the below-inflation deal to members. Instead they have suspended strikes and asked members to endorse a strategy of stopping action while not accepting the deal. Perhaps that was understandable when the miners’ union did it after a year on strike in 1984‑5. It is extraordinary after just three days of national strikes and extended targeted stoppages.
Nurses in the RCN union who held historic and well‑supported strikes missed the turnout threshold under the Tory anti-union laws and have also ceased action. Over the last few days university workers in the UCU union have been forced to revolt against their general secretary in an effort to keep their action going.
The strikes are far from over. Workers still show amazing resilience and determination. Rail workers continue their 14-month campaign with occasional strikes, junior doctors have just finished a five-day walkout, and hospital consultants are set to be out on 25 and 25 August and then 19 and 20 September.
There are very important all out local strikes such as at St Mungo’s, NSL in Camden and Brighton university. The cost of living crisis—the social emergency—is not ending. Inflation is still well ahead of average wage rises so workers are still hit by pay cuts. Rents and mortgages are up sharply.
And now unemployment is ticking up. It would be even higher had not up to half a million workers dropped out of the workforce because of illness or early retirement. A recession, coming as inflation stays high, can ignite more national struggles—if workers fight to detonate them. But we have to face facts. Around 600,000 workers who have been on strike won’t be again in the near future.
That reduces the pressure on bosses and the Tories. It also strengthens those union leaders who see the coming general election as the key—and a reason to rein back struggle in case it “puts off” voters. These leaders haven’t just championed deals that are a bit less than might have been won. Some have openly sabotaged struggle, others have spread illusion about the reality of what was on offer.
All have run away from decisive confrontation. That’s true of the left leaders as well as the right. So the solution can’t just be electing better general secretaries. The summit has to be an honest appraisal of what’s been positive in the last year but also what has enabled union leaders to ram through bad deals.
Its theme, Socialist Worker thinks, has to be “the union leaders’ strategy has failed us, next time, let’s organise to do it better”. Centrally that means developing grassroots networks—rank and file organisation as it is sometimes called. This could challenge the union leaders when necessary, accelerate the action taken and stop sell-outs.
Strike committees, democracy at the base, and links between workers are a major focus. The experience of groups such as NHS Workers Say No, the UCU Solidarity Movement and Educators Say No will be important. Ultimately most have not been able to act independently of the officials, but they do have some lessons for all of us. And they are part of a wider push for democracy, reflected in the St Mungo’s strike, for example.
The summit has to discuss how to keep active the new layers who have energised the pickets. Often these were young, black, LGBT+, disabled people and others who had not previously been involved. The 23 September is for people who have taken part in national disputes, the brilliant Amazon strikes, the local indefinite ones, the refuse and bus strikes and others.
But it’s also for those who want to know how to get the fightback started. And those who aren’t in a union but want to start organising. The summit had to be very different to the model that was put forward by Enough is Enough. RMT leader Mick Lynch and CWU leader Dave Ward launched this with great fanfare in front of an enthusiastic audience of 1,500 a year ago.
Enough Is Enough rallies followed in several cities and close to a million people signed up for its mailing list. And then—nothing. Enough Is Enough could have done serious fundraising, built mass pickets, and encouraged unification and escalation. But the politics of the union bureaucracy, fearful of “losing control” and reluctant to open up to real involvement, crushed that potential.
The summit will be a test of activists’ roots and support. Networks of grassroots resistance may be relatively small, but it’s best to be truthful and grow from that. And the summit can’t be narrowly focused just on immediate workplace matters. Many of the strikes in the last 12 months have raised political issues.
Rail workers demand a safe network with enough workers to deliver a service for all. Health workers call for a fully‑resourced NHS and pay that retains staff. More generally, it’s obvious that unions can’t ignore issues such as the anti-union laws that have just gone through, the climate emergency and the government’s racist determination to scapegoat refugees and migrants.
And there has to be a recognition that Keir Starmer isn’t the answer to the problems workers face. If he’s in Downing Street there has to be enough rank and file strength to launch more struggles, not wind them down because the union leaders think that this is “our government”. Be at the summit in five weeks’ time to be part of developing the most precious gain of the strike wave—the potential to go further.
- For details of the Workers’ Summit and to register go to bit.ly/WS230923 To add your union branch to the supporting organisations, or for a model motion, contact [email protected]